History, they say, is written by the victors. Perhaps, in fashion, it is written by those with an archive. For London Fashion Week, Belstaff’s Bond Street flagship unveiled, for the first time, some of the fruits of several years of hunting for the garments that underpin this 93-year-old company.
Expect the pop-up exhibition to show off the likes of full leather-quilted ‘Le Mans’ racing suits and fringed biker jackets from the 1970s, cafe racer styles from the 1950s – all patches and patina – right back to a motorcycle coat from the 1930s, a rare hybrid of early Air Ministry aviation coats and the Senior TT coats made by Belstaff in the 1920s.
Such a display underpins Belstaff’s heritage, which perhaps some people have not fully appreciated. As well as its well-known waxed cotton motorcycle jackets – most famously the classic Trialmaster – the company has also made clothes for hunting, aviation and the military.
One of the people who certainly appreciates this heritage is Doug Gunn, co-owner of vintage menswear dealers The Vintage Showroom, both because he’s an enthusiastic Belstaff collector, and also because for the last five years he has been charged with building an archive which the brand has never really had ahead of centenary celebrations in 2024. That has even meant bidding at auction to win a jacket once owned by Steve McQueen.
‘Twenty years ago brands just didn’t value their history,’ he explains. ‘But now it’s such a crowded marketplace, so having been around for 90 years is valuable to any company – it’s something customers relate to. There’s no denying that the leather motorcycle pieces in this exhibition are historically significant ones for Belstaff. But so is the rest of the archive the company is building. An archive can be extremely important in shaping a brand’s design direction – key garments from the past can inspire a collection today, as we seeing with Belstaff’s new pieces.’
Bringing this fledgling archive together has brought with it some surprises, not least the company’s perplexingly diverse range of logos, a canoeist’s smock made for the British elite Special Boat Service in the 1960s, trench coats and fishing jackets and even a canvas tent – all made by Belstaff. ‘There’s just been so much more to Belstaff’s design history,’ notes Gunn.